The results are in, and for the first time in years, Kansas City Public received an accountability score from the state that qualifies it for full accreditation.
But it won’t be enough to convince the State Board the urban school district is back on track.
“We have been very clear that you need to show at least two years,” says Margie Vandeven, Missouri Commissioner of Education.
Still, KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell sees cause for celebration.
“We think if we’re doing these things well, it gives us an opportunity to talk to the state about, ‘Hey, next year, if we hit 70 percent, we are going to apply for full accreditation,’” Bedell told KCUR.
Five long years
KCPS lost accreditation in 2011 after a tumultuous decade that saw half the schools in the district closed. Central office was a revolving door of superintendents, though things seemed to stabilize under Bedell’s predecessor, R. Stephen Green, and the district regained provisional accreditation.
But Green departed abruptly, too, to take the a job in Georgia.
An interim superintendent led the district for a year, until the school board could hire Bedell. He arrived July 1 from Baltimore County, Maryland, where he was assistant superintendent.
“When we think about our accountability, how our kids are performing on math, science, social studies and English, we know as a school district we still have a lot of work to do in the academic area,” Bedell says. “There’s definitely room for growth, but we when we think of many of the other areas, we’ve hit status in some of those areas because of the work that’s been done over the last five or six years.”
Missouri requires a minimum score of 70 out of 100 for full accreditation.
KCPS scored exactly 70 percent.
But that’s only after adjustments were made for new state assessments that are considered to be much harder than the old tests. State lawmakers instructed the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to “hold harmless” districts that under-performed and not yank their accreditation.
DESE ended up adjusting the accountability scores for Kansas City and six other school districts as a result. If not for hold harmless, KCPS only would have received 64.3 percent.
Bedell says he doesn’t like that the state had to handicap the district’s score.
“You want to make sure in anything that you do that you’re getting it based on pure performance of your students,” he says. “I tell my students, ‘I understand that you come from a very difficult background.’ I don’t want people to use that as a crutch to why we can’t educate our kids highly.”
At the same time, Bedell expressed some frustration with the state’s changing standards and assessments.
First Missouri was using Common Core, a set of nationally-crafted academic standards that many states adopted as part of waiver agreements with the U.S. Department of Education.
Then the state opted out, declaring it would create its own college- and career-ready standards.
“It’s been difficult because it’s a moving target. Every time a standard changes, you’re in a situation where you have to rewrite curriculum.”
Now it’s the accountability system that’s due for an overhaul.
“It starts with us,” Bedell says. “We have to be held accountable for the results that happen at schools. It can’t be central office versus the schools, central office versus the community.”
Bedell says every new superintendent will want to do things his way. To that end, he’s already implemented a new attendance strategy.
The district has a high mobility rate – 41 percent – and it gets dinged for every student it can’t account for.
“Some of these kids end up leaving and they go to other schools, but if we don’t get a transcript request from the schools they’re going to, we still remain the district of responsibility,” Bedell says.
It’s automatic now. The district follows up after a student’s third absence to figure out where they are and if they’re coming back.
A parent's perspective
One thing Bedell was adamant about when he took the job: his three kids would attend KCPS schools.
His two older children go to Lincoln Prep. His youngest is at Border Star Montessori.
They give him insight he otherwise wouldn’t have.
“We recently had a half-day Halloween,” Bedell says. “The attendance rates weren’t where they needed to be, which was a concern of mine, but then my kids felt like this half day, we didn’t get much out of it.”
Bedell says that’s not acceptable when there are only 175 days in a school year. So he’s asked his leadership team for recommendations on how to make half days more useful to students.
But he says he feels good when he recommends Kansas City Public Schools to parents. Many of the individual schools, like the top-rated Lincoln, have accreditation that is separate from the district’s.
The ones that don’t are Bedell’s first priority.
“I talk to people, I always say that fair isn’t always equal. I think you have to look at it from school to school,” Bedell says. “(I’m) really trying to categorize which schools need more, need the most. That’s when you begin to address your school system in an equitable manner.”
Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.